What Happens in Vegas…

Illustration by Henry JansenPhoto: Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Is it disheartening for Steven Soderbergh that his best movie in years is his swank Vegas caper comedy Ocean’s 13—and not his searching remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris; his rough-hewn study of the dark side of working-class life, Bubble; or his subversive anti-Casablanca, The Good German? In those ambitious films, in virtually everything he has done since his debut, sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh has probed the unreliability of surfaces, in life and onscreen—surfaces that mask corruption, that put a glamorous sheen on the messy and duplicitous, that call into question the very medium in which he works. Now comes Ocean’s 13, which is all surface, all impossible glamour—a big lie lofted into the stratosphere by grotesque amounts of Hollywood cash. It’s so money! It’s so fun!

The movie—the second sequel in a “franchise” that began as a remake—glides in on a wave of hipsterism, on Vegas-y jazz and A-list leading men who saunter across the color-saturated screen in exquisitely tailored suits. There are no visual or moral dissonances. Our twinkling thieves, led by Danny Ocean (George Clooney), aren’t in it for the money. They’re out to avenge their friend and elder, Reuben (Elliot Gould), who—in one of several pretzeled flashbacks—gets muscled out of a deal by casino magnate Willy Bank (Al Pacino flashing his choppers under a curly hennaed thatch). Reuben is heartbroken both literally and figuratively (“You shook Sinatra’s hand!” he gasps—as if only men of honor ever did); he lies now in a quasi coma, his fragile spirit presumably waiting for news of his nemesis’s emasculation.

It’s a-comin’, because Ocean’s 13 must prove mightier than Pacino’s palatial casino and its impregnable security system. Unlike that non-team-player, these men are willing to surrender their individuality and become cogs in the greater machine, just as these stars now let themselves be pieces of the greater ensemble—although not, admittedly, for love. (The two words Hollywood actors most like to hear are “sequel money.”) In its worship of the perfect con as a multifaceted machine, Ocean’s 13 is the real remake of the old TV series Mission: Impossible, which Tom Cruise neutered when he put himself and his ridiculous running leaps at the center.

Heartthrob-wise, the Cruise equivalent here is Brad Pitt—a contented second banana to Clooney. Matt Damon is an insecure nerd. Don Cheadle is a mechanic (and hallelujah, scales back his Cockney accent, the worst since Dick Van Dyke’s). Bernie Mac is barely a blip, but the others get face time: Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Eddie Jemison, Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner … The new member of the team turns out to be Ocean’s previous arch-enemy, casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who resents Bank’s new place for throwing a shadow over his swimming pool. Garcia gets a fat pedestal and grooves on it: He has never looked so sleek and sharp and dangerously pleased with himself.

The previous sequel, Ocean’s 12, had an excellent farce subplot in which Julia Roberts’s Tess was drafted to impersonate … Julia Roberts. But the movie was otherwise a muddle. This one, without Julia or any love interest, is as elegant and streamlined as its hero. The screenwriters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders), turn the absence of wives/girlfriends into a joke: Clooney and Pitt rap about their disintegrating relationships between hashing out the minutiae of generating an earthquake under part of Vegas. As nice as a bit of cheesecake would be, this is basically a juvenile male-bonding fantasy in which women serve no purpose but to poop on the party. What sex remains is a clown show with Ellen Barkin as Pacino’s chief of operations driven mad with desire for Matt Damon in a big fake nose. (It’s good to see Barkin back after years of decorating her gilded cage.)

Are all the feints and interlocking scams and triple-crosses easy to follow? Sort of. Well, no. But Soderbergh is a savvy guy. As the plotting gets knottier, his technique gets more fluid—the editing jazzier, the colors more luscious, the whip-pans more whizbang. It’s all anchored by Clooney, looking impudent, roguish, almost laughably handsome. The character—the whole movie—seems to emanate from his well-known real-life penchant for practical jokes. Maybe Soderbergh’s work in Ocean’s 13 isn’t so superficial after all. Maybe after questioning every lustrous image in The Good German, he was liberated by Vegas, that monument to ersatz. Is it possible that only a director so distrustful of surfaces could surrender so thrillingly to the big lie?

I wonder what it’s like to grow up in a world in which so many kid shows and movies are “meta.” Characters in fairy tales lampoon their status as characters in fairy tales. Tween sitcoms and variety shows take place behind the scenes of tween sitcoms and variety shows. I’m sure most of this stuff is less pernicious than many actual fairy tales or the retro sitcoms that I was stuck watching. (Bewitched, anyone?) But what does it do to your head to come of age in a culture where nothing is straight?

I have no idea what little kids will make of the new animated feature Surf’s Up—another of those “hand-hold” movies aimed at both children and the grown-ups who protect them and shell out for their popcorn. It’s a “mockumentary”—a parody of something like the surfing doc Step Into Liquid, only with penguins. It’s all shot with hand-held cameras. No, what I mean is, it’s all “shot” with “hand-held” “cameras.” It alternates “contemporary” surfing “footage” with “historical” surfing “footage” and “talking-head” “interviews.” The directors, Ash Brannon and Chris Buck (who wrote the script along with Don Rhymer and Christopher Jenkins), nail all the current competition-doc clichés. The “camera crew” follows teenage penguin Cody Maverick (with the voice of Shia LaBeouf) as he runs away from Antarctica to the “high-octane” world of Hawaiian penguin surfing—where he falls in with Sheboygan surfer Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). Don’t worry, parents, only you—and not your 5-year-old—will get that the chicken’s stoned out of his gourd.

Kids will certainly appreciate the life lessons—“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” “Winning isn’t everything,” etc. And they’ll love all that surfing, which is astounding—and hilarious, if you can appreciate that the sight here of a penguin sailing through a scary-colossal “pipe” has more verisimilitude than the computer-generated head of Kate Bosworth on top of someone else’s body in the go-for-it female surfer picture Blue Crush. Kids will also enjoy the motormouth otter surf promoter Reggie Belafonte, although he’s even funnier if you imagine James Woods by himself in a little room babbling into the microphone. Ditto sexy gentoo-penguin lifeguard Lani Aliikai, who’s much sexier if you replace her in your mind with her vocalist, Zooey Deschanel. Best of all is the washed-up champion surfer who tries to instruct Cody in Zen and the art of surfboard carving—his belligerence escalating with the younger penguin’s every juvenile challenge. His scenes are to die for, but the death will be sweeter if you know that the irritable “Big Z” has the same inflections as Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski, and that this might be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Jeff Bridges again in his most celebrated performance. In short, the kids won’t know how terrific Surf’s Up is.

Timothy Spall plays the title character in Adrian Shergold’s engrossing Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, in which he looks like a cross between a giant rat (which he plays, more or less, in the Harry Potter films) and Charles Laughton’s doleful Quasimodo. It’s 1932, and Pierrepoint (pronounced “Peer-point”) has always wanted his late dad’s job—executing men and women in the name of the Crown. He turns out to be a natural at judging the precise length of rope that will snap their second and third vertebrae most efficiently (and, in a manner of speaking, most humanely) without ripping off their heads (as was done recently in Iraq, home of less conscientious hangmen).

Pierrepoint—who really existed—doesn’t want to know the crimes of those he hangs; he only wants to know their height and weight. And he doesn’t regard hangings as occasions for hanging out; he finishes off the condemned swiftly. (He aims to beat his dad’s average time of thirteen seconds from holding cell to trapdoor.) Afterward, he cleans their bodies with tenderness and care. They have paid the ultimate price for their crimes, he says, puffing ruminatively on a cigar. Now they are innocent.

Pierrepoint believes he can remain detached from what he does. The movie’s message is that he can’t, which we realize in the first fifteen minutes (Spall’s features are plainly stricken) but which takes Pierrepoint 75 more. That makes the payoff, however emotional, relatively small. But Pierrepoint is worth seeing for Shergold’s attention to process and for all the ghoulish details. Who knew General Montgomery himself tapped Pierrepoint to hang a slew of Nuremberg-condemned Nazis to show the world how civilized societies kill people? It’s also fascinating to watch Spall tiptoeing around his proper English wife (the wonderful Juliet Stevenson), who counts the money but won’t hear a word about what her husband does for it. Alcoholics Anonymous members are fond of saying, “Denial is not a river in Egypt”—but it might be a river in England.

Ocean’s 13
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Warner Bros. PG-13.

Surf’s Up
Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck. Sony. PG.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman
Directed by Adrian Shergold. Lionsgate. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

What Happens in Vegas…